BREAST CANCER ARTICLES MAY SEND THE WRONG MESSAGE
By Caitlin Burke
Magazines are full of articles about breast cancer, and judging by the women they profile, it's a disease of young women.
Magazines such as Time, Ebony and US News and World Report are telling their readers about cancer -- how to screen for it, how it's treated, how to prevent it. But even articles with the right information can give the wrong impression. By treating breast cancer as a disease of young women, popular magazines may be scaring women into thinking their risk of breast cancer is much more immediate than it is.
Researchers at the University of Washington and Oregon Health Sciences University examined almost 400 articles about breast cancer from popular magazines published between 1993 and 1997. Their article, "Misleading Presentation of Breast Cancer in Popular Magazines," is published in the March/April 2001 issue of Effective Clinical Practice. They selected articles from popular US magazines with circulations of 500,000 and over.
Only 14 percent of the articles gave factual information about age as a risk factor for breast cancer. However, 34 percent of the articles profiled women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Of the women for whom ages were reported, 84 percent were diagnosed before age 50, and 47 percent were diagnosed before age 40. In the US population, only 16 percent of breast cancer is diagnosed before age 50, and only 3.6 percent before age 40.
The researchers noted that the data "suggest that strategies used to capture readers' attention might result in an unacceptable loss of scientific accuracy." They concluded, "This presentation of breast cancer may contribute to women's fears of breast cancer and to overestimates of personal risk."
"I encourage my patients to read and know more about their health," said article coauthor Dr. Linda Pinsky. "It makes it harder for them -- and for us as a team -- when the information isn't right."
Women face a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer, but this is a cumulative risk that applies to women who live to their 90s. Also, while breast cancer is often diagnosed, it leads to death in only about 3 percent of cases. The leading cancer cause of death in women is lung cancer.
This doesn't mean women can forget about breast cancer. Women should still be screened, especially as they get older. Dr. Wylie Burke, the article's lead author, said, "That's one of the perverse effects of thinking breast cancer is a disease of younger women: Some women think they can stop getting mammograms in their 60s, just when it may be most important."
Modified June 2001.